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Rolling the dice on safety

Should dismissal be automatic for safety-sensitive employees who knowingly ignore safety guidelines?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

It’s good to feel safe, wherever you are.

Feeling safe at work is particularly important, since we spend so much time there. For employers, making sure employees are safe while at the workplace benefits in many ways — employees who are in good health and feel safe are likely more productive.

And an injured employee can’t work, so an employer would have to find a replacement or foist that employee’s duties onto other employees. And on top of it all, employers can face heavy fines and even jail time if they’re found to have violated health and safety legislation. So it makes sense for employers to take a proactive approach to ensure their workplaces are safe, especially those in industries that have workplaces that can be particularly dangerous, such as construction or manufacturing.

Some employers have strict safety guidelines that employees are required to follow to ensure precautions are taken to minimize potential dangers. Failure to follow these guidelines is serious misconduct that warrants discipline, sometimes even termination of employment. But should safety violations in dangerous workplaces be grounds for automatic dismissal, or should progressive discipline apply?

Last summer, an electrician for an Ontario construction company was caught working on live electrical wires without following the company’s safety guidelines, which stated electrical systems had to be locked down before working on wires. The company’s policy outlined types of safety violations and the type of discipline for each. For the most serious violations, which could result in death or serious injury, immediate dismissal was the consequence. In this instance, the electrician or someone else could have been electrocuted with 120 volts of electricity.

The electrician was fired, but an arbitrator found that since it was his first such violation during his short time with the company and a longer career before that, he deserved another chance. A one-month suspension was substituted for the dismissal. The arbitrator acknowledged the electrician’s negligence could have caused “serious injury and possibly death,” but dismissal should not be automatic.

Would the decision have been different if someone was seriously injured, or worse? It wouldn’t change the nature of the misconduct. And safety was of the utmost importance to the employer. If employees didn’t follow its written guidelines, there were would be a lot of trouble. Should an employer have the right to dismiss an employee who knowingly violates written safety guidelines and endangers people in the workplace, regardless of that employee’s previous record? Would it matter if someone actually was seriously hurt or killed because of that violation?

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com. He can be reached at jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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